SINGAPORE: Growing up, Ryan Tan never thought he amounted to much.
He flunked almost every test paper in primary school and used to lash out at classmates in frustration.
“I thought I was just not good at passing and that made me very angry. I felt like no one could understand my problems. That made me get into a lot of trouble and I was often sent to the principal's office for hurting my friends,” he recalled.
But all it took was keen observation from a teacher to turn things around.
“His primary school teacher saw that Ryan was smart, but he simply refused to do his work as he kept saying he couldn’t understand the concepts. So we decided to seek professional help,” said Ms Agnes Poh, Ryan’s mother, who later learned that he had dyslexia.
Today the St Andrew’s Secondary School student may still have difficulties learning, but his grades have improved tremendously.
Fortunately for him, he has the support of his school’s Allied Educator (Learning and Behavioral Support) Kelvin Lim.
"When he first came into secondary school, he did have some behavioral issues. Sometimes he's impulsive, may do things without thinking too much about it. At other times he gets himself into trouble,” Mr Lim said.
“What we did was to try to help him to understand that his behaviour has consequences, and how he should try to regulate himself through breathing. This slows him down and helps him process what he should do next,” he added.
Mr Lim is among 500 other AEDs who provide structured support to special educational needs students (SEN) in mainstream schools.
His work is very demanding but the education ministry is taking steps to attract and retain people by keeping salaries competitive, and skills relevant, through regular training and peer consultations.
“AEDs who demonstrate good performance and potential can look forward to taking on higher appointments, such as Lead AED, Master AED and Chief AED to lead the fraternity at cluster, zonal and national levels. MOE will also continue to review the remuneration packages of AEDs (LBS) to ensure that they remain market competitive,” said Ms Damodaran Meena, MOE’s deputy director of psychological services.
In addition to their pre-service training in Diploma in Special Education, beginning AEDs attend a one-year mentoring course for structured professional support to develop their competence and confidence in their roles. Meanwhile, experienced AEDs receive in-service training to better support a wide range of SEN
MOE added that regular engagement sessions are also conducted for AEDs to raise concerns and clarify issues with colleagues from MOE’s Psychological Services Branch.
For Mr Lim, this includes attending a course at the Autism Resource Centre and keeping abreast of research developments.
"Most importantly, it's trying to understand the reason for a child's behaviour. This boils down to some of the framework in education psychology,” he said.
The measures to boost support AEDs come as more children with SEN enrol in mainstream schools.
Figures have risen from 13,000 in 2013 to 20,000 this year, and accounts for about 4.5 per cent of the total student population.
MOE said this is due to greater access to diagnosis by professionals, including in the early years, with services available at the Department of Child Development in government hospitals.
According to one AED at Boon Lay Garden Primary School who has been in service for seven years, perception of the profession has certainly evolved.
"We are seeing a lot of changes. When I first started, teachers did not know what my role was. When I explained to them that I worked with students with special needs, they would ask me questions like: ‘Oh you mean this student is not supposed to be here? So will he be transferring to another school?’” Ashveen Kaur Randhawa told Channel NewsAsia.
“Now I have teachers coming up to me and telling me: ‘You know, Ashveen, I have this student with dyslexia in my class, but he has a lot of potential. Can you share with me strategies that I can put in place to maximise learning in class?’” she continued.
But creating a conducive environment for these children goes beyond a school setting as AEDs have to work closely with parents, guardians and teachers to keep them updated on the students' progress.
"One needs a lot of patience and assistance, especially in a mainstream school where these students are often compared to their typical peers. It gets really challenging. A lot of planning and thought goes into working with these students. I think most importantly it requires collaboration among the different partners. It is really not a one-man-show,” she explained, adding that she sees about 70 students, 30 of whom are on a regular basis.
In Ryan's case, Mr Lim, his family and mathematics tutor have been patiently helping him, and his grades have since improved from four marks out of 30 to 14.5 in recent tests.
"Because of his learning difficulties, Ryan hasn't always been willing to do much homework. With Kelvin stepping in to help him, offering him study skills strategies, I saw a change. Ryan was more willing to do his homework. I also see efforts in him managing his emotions at home,” Ms Poh said.
But she says to support AEDs in helping these children, parents need to alter expectations and should not compare them with their peers.
“The very first thing Ryan shared with me when he first learned he was dyslexic was: ‘Oh mom I'm so happy to know that I’m not stupid.’ That struck me and I imagine that other children with learning difficulties might also think that way because they are not performing academically,” she reflected.
For Ms Poh, getting her son diagnosed was one step closer to helping him achieve his full potential, because as she stressed throughout the interview, children with SEN simply learn differently.